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Vicar's Musings for Ordinary Sunday 32

9 November, 2014

After the Requiem Mass for All Souls on Monday one of the more than 75 people who attended said to me: "Fr Hugh, that was the most moving service I have been to since joining St Peter's." The sense of being surrounded by "a great cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1) was palpable. We prayed for the souls of those close to us who have died, and were joined by the family and friends of Fr Sam Ata, a former priest of this parish who sadly passed away last week in the Solomon Islands of a spinal infection.

Some Christians think we Anglo-Catholics are a bit strange, however, with our Masses for the dead and prayers to the Saints. The root of such differences goes back to the Reformation. Article 22 of the Thirty Nine Articles of Faith, for example, states: "The Romish Doctrine concerning purgatory ... is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God." In 1966 John Macquarrie wrote Principles of Christian Theology in which he put the doctrine of purgatory firmly back on the mainstream Anglican theological agenda. Macquarrie's understanding of purgatory is quite simply a sanctifying process, in which those who die in imperfection are conformed to Christ. He writes (p.367):

It is hard to understand why Protestant theologians have such a violent prejudice against this conception, for it seems to be to be indispensible to any reasonable understanding of Christian eschatology .... If the ultimate destiny of the individual is somehow to be taken up into the vaster movement of Being, then purgatory is the process by which he [or she] becomes fitted for this. He [or she] is called out of nothing into existence, from existence to selfhood, from selfhood to Christhood and incorporation into God. This whole movement is a process of purification.

As much as the rational arguments of theology, poetry and music can take us to a place where we may begin to understand, or at least grapple with this mysterious element of our faith - life after death. One of the classic poems on the after-life is John Henry Newman's The Dream of Gerontius (1865). An old man dies. He goes before the presence of God and finally enters the cleansing lake of purgatory. The poem is worth reading in full, but here is a taste, the angel's final speech to Gerontius as he is gently placed into the lake (www.ccel.org/ccel/newman/gerontius):

Softly and gently, dearly-ransomed soul
In my most loving arms I now enfold thee
And, o'er the penal waters, as they roll
I poise thee, and I lower thee, and hold thee.
And carefully I dip thee in the lake
And thou, without a sob or a resistance
Dost through the flood thy rapid passage take
Sinking deep, deeper, into the dim distance.
Angels, to whom the willing task is given
Shall tend, and nurse, and lull thee, as thou liest
And Masses on the earth and prayers in heaven
Shall aid thee at the Throne of the most Highest.
Farewell, but not forever! Brother dear
Be brave and patient on thy bed of sorrow
Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here
And I will come and wake thee on the morrow.

The Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster

Illustration for Ordinary Sunday 32 Musings

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